As an educator, chances are you’ve come across a student who’s nearly there – you can see their A+ paper in the making or that admissions essay that is sure to secure their place at their dream college. Often this student seeks out your feedback, or you are able to offer feedback in response to an assignment. A common, and natural, reaction in this situation is to lean in, offering hints and suggestions, all aimed to supporting this truly capable student. In many ways, it’s hard to stop yourself, genuinely thinking that this is just what she needs for the knock-out punch. It seems innocent enough and oh, the satisfaction the student will feel from getting it just right! But, what if all the little tips, tricks, and suggestions have the opposite impact, causing her to throw in the towel, rather than keep fighting?
Just typing that last question seems like blasphemy… I mean, who wouldn’t want to know the finer points that will turn their A into an A+ or their mediocre essay into an acceptance essay? Well, it turns out, quite a few. It is not that they lack motivation or interest to succeed, so much as it is the experience they have on the receiving end of this well-meaning input. At least that’s what I came to understand when I was introduced to one of our more recently named Accidental Diminisher tendencies, The Perfectionist. In Multipliers, the perfectionist is defined as “the leader who appreciates excellence and loves the feeling of getting something perfect, not only setting a high standard, but wants everyone around her to have the satisfaction of getting it just exactly right. So, she offers helpful critiques, and points out little mistakes and flaws.” The first time I read this definition it felt like I got sucker-punched.
In reflecting on the countless times colleagues, friends, and relatives asked me to review an essay, resume, or publication, I wondered: “How many times did my feedback feel like the final blow before the knock-out, despite my good intent?” Honored to be invited to offer feedback, I’d kick-on “track-changes” and get to work – applauding an elegantly written paragraph while at the same time reorganizing other paragraphs, recommending a new writing style, and offering examples of how I might rewrite their stories or better state the point. At the time, it felt like lending this additional perspective supported their growth, which fueled me to keep going, piling on the suggestions. It wasn’t until I saw this analogy:
“So, he offers helpful critiques and points out little mistakes and flaws, the way a home owner might use blue construction tape to mark the slightest imperfections in a home improvement project – a drip of paint here, a stray exposed nail head there – so the builder can fix the mistakes, work down the punch list and enjoy the pride of craftmanship.” (Wiseman, 2017)
That I realized how it must feel on their side and saw the unintended consequences. In fact, it totally explained, for me, why my nephew ditched his college application (to my alma mater, nonetheless) as we worked together on his statement of purpose. After three rounds he stopped asking for help, which in retrospect, as I imagine the red din of track changes flooding the document, probably felt like the twelfth round to him. Instead of support, he saw blood and loss that quickly turned into disengagement.
After the initial sting of realizing, and then owning, my perfectionist tendencies, I started to consider ways of offering fewer suggestions might create more space and elicit even better thinking. With some experimentation, I came to find a few new strategies to tamp down my inner-perfectionist while at the same time supporting others to produce their very best work. As you might have guessed, much of it begins with curiosity, and more specifically, suspending what I know about what “just perfectly right” looks like.
Become a Detective
Instead of blindly jumping in to offer every piece of feedback that might be seen as improvement, do what detectives do best – start with questions. Now, anytime I receive an invitation to provide feedback, I first respond with questions like: Where are you in the process – first draft or about to submit? What area are you most interested in receiving input on? What one or two questions might you ask me to help direct the feedback? Inviting the requestor into the process allows for a narrowing of the investigation field, so the feedback is more relevant and, more importantly, so the writer retains ownership of the product.
This might be a bit harder in the case of a class assignment, but not impossible. One way you might accomplish this is to offer a few reflection questions for the student to submit with their assignment. For example, what came easily for you in this assignment? What was more difficult? What kind of feedback might be most helpful for you to continue to grow in this area? Inviting students to be reflective about their own work is one way to keep the work in the hands of the rightful owner.
Minimize the Red Pen (Or Just Drop It Altogether):
As a kid I came to love the fabulous double-sided pens my mom would let me use as I graded papers for her 7th grade math class. (Until searching to find a picture of these, I had no idea some brands actually market them as “grading pens.”) It seems red ink has been a sign of feedback and corrections for ages. In fact, much has been written about the impact of red ink and the need to drop the red pen, frequently in favor a picking up a different color pen. I’d like to offer that the while the color of the pen may help, the quantity of marks makes an even bigger difference.
Recently, I was working with a client to develop his resume and he made a dramatic shift between the first and second draft. It was a makeover that took a drab list of responsibilities and turned the page into an elegant, accomplishment-focused resume. Thrilled to see his capability shine through, the perfectionist in me saw an even more brilliant resume in the making. So, I printed the resume; jotted copious notes in my light blue pen; put the document in my folder to bring to our next meeting. Luckily, the meeting occurred a couple of days later, which gave me a moment to reflect. I wondered, how might handing him a plentifully marked-up page get in the way of honoring the amazing work he already did? I quickly regrouped, marked-up a new version with just two questions and one minor spacing note. In the end, I decided not to share either document; instead, opting for a few well-placed, open and spacious questions in our next session. By shifting the thinking to my client, he had the opportunity not just to produce a better resume, but also grow his understanding of what it takes to market his skills to the right jobs.
As I reflect on these experiences, I’m reminded of this quote from Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” With heightened awareness of the impact my perfectionist tendencies can have on others, I now know better. It is up to me to do better from here forward and recognize that doing better doesn’t always mean eliminating perfectionism. Instead, it means keeping our awareness top of mind, so we create more opportunities to be intentional in how we respond. For a different client and a different time, I might have made a choice to offer the second version of my edits (I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d offer version one). With awareness comes choice.
Wiseman, Liz. (2017). Multipliers: How the best leaders make everyone smarter. Second Edition. Harper Business: New York, NY.